Heads in the clouds

31st July 2009 at 01:00
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's an airship about to land. A visit to Scotland's National Museum of Flight is guaranteed to virtually lift your spirits

If you want a day away for your class that is going to tire them out and give them an insight into the science and technology of air travel, Scotland's National Museum of Flight fits the bill. Plus, it's in the middle of nowhere on a massive site, so kids can safely run around and breathe in fresh air.

For people who haven't visited before, the museum at the historic East Fortune airfield in East Lothian (20 miles from Edinburgh; nearest train station North Berwick) is a revelation. The location is stunning - but not that well signposted, so keep your eyes peeled. It first came into use during the First World War as a base for aircraft protecting the Royal Navy's fleet in the nearby Firth of Forth.

Famously, the museum is home to Concorde and while that superstar of the aircraft world is housed in its own Concorde Experience hangar, there are, thrillingly, other planes simply "parked" outside.

Now, following consultation with teachers and family focus groups, the museum has created Pounds 2 million-worth of new interactives and other attractions aimed at enhancing the visitor experience.

The "Fantastic Flight" gallery has been designed with seven to 11-year- olds in mind and features a range of 24 robust interactives which help us understand how aeroplanes fly, the way they are built and the skills needed to fly them.

Refreshingly, the emphasis is very much on physical and practical activity rather than computer interaction, a decision largely taken on the grounds that most children these days already have regular access to sophisticated computer programs. So instead of a science-of-flight version of Grand Theft Auto, visitors can jump on a bike to turn a propeller; pump air into a giant tube to launch a plastic bottle; and try to blow a ball into a basket.

At a large work table, there are stacks of coloured paper and instructions on how to fold it into one of many different aeroplane designs which can then be tested on a contraption that shoots your plane towards a series of hanging clouds.

Aerodynamics can be experienced by placing different shapes of moulded polystyrene on your hand and sticking it into a wind tunnel to test the resistance.

Visitors discover how strong, but heavy, materials such as wood, aluminium and titanium have been adapted for use in the aeroplane-building industry. Aluminium, for instance, can be made into thin sheets and have large holes punched in it without affecting its essential properties.

Although designed with the seven to 11 age group in mind, with text kept to a minimum, the Fantastic Flight gallery can be enjoyed by everyone, particularly in the Experience of Flight section. Here, among other features, a suite of simple interactives tests you for colour blindness, judging distance, peripheral vision, hearing and fast reaction, to discover if you have what it takes to fly an aircraft.

A major concession to the new gallery's low-tech approach is the state-of- the-art R34 airship simulator (complete with authentic rumbling sounds), created by the Digital Design Studio at the Glasgow School of Art. "Tiny" was the ironic nickname given to the massive R34 airship based at East Fortune, just after the First World War, where it took off - needing more than 400 people to hold it down - for the world's first return flight across the Atlantic.

Visitors get to stand at the controls of the interactive airship and look out of its wraparound window as they attempt to land "Tiny" on the airfield - which isn't as easy as it sounds.

Other new attractions include the "Fortunes of War" gallery, which has been designed with senior pupils in mind and tells the story, using film, words and objects, of the East Fortune site and some of the men and women who worked there.


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